Jim Kenyon: No safe arbor as Windsor board denies LGBTQ+ group’s tree

Valley News Columnist
Published: 10/22/2022 10:17:32 PM
Modified: 10/22/2022 10:17:20 PM

Who doesn’t want more trees? Judging by what transpired at its most recent meeting, three-fifths of the Windsor Selectboard.

For the record, Tera Howard, Jeffrey Johnson and Paul Woodman aren’t opposed to all trees. The just don’t want one tree in particular planted on the town common.

And it’s really not the tree itself — a tulip tree — that’s at the root of their objections. It’s about the LGBTQ+ group that wants to plant the “Pride” tree.

“I don’t think it’s fair for one group to cram their ideology down everyone’s throat and I feel like that’s what is being done here,” Howard said at the Oct. 11 board meeting.

How did a tree get tangled up in the culture wars?

As board member Chris Goulet, who supported planting the tree, aptly pointed out, “it really isn’t a big deal.”

But a majority of his colleagues — along with Town Manager Tom Marsh — disagreed.

“I think it’s divisive to elevate one group over another,” said Marsh, who has run town’s daily operations for 11 years.

The hourlong debate got a “little heated,” Marsh acknowledged. And in the end, the board voted, 3-2, not to ask Marsh to work with the LGBTQ+ group on finding a home for the tree in a public space.

The LGBTQ+ group, led by former Selectboard member Amanda Jordan Smith, deserved better.

The group collaborated with Michael Metivier, the town’s tree warden, to lay the groundwork for planting a tulip tree in a far corner of the common, which is across the street from the Windsor Library.

In a letter to the board, Metivier wrote that he found “dedicating a beautiful, living tree in the name of our vibrant LGBTQ+ community to be both symbolic and welcoming to future would-be residents (and generations), and meaningful to those already here.”

Utilizing a small portion of a $10,000 state grant that Windsor had received to purchase and plant trees, the tulip tree would have come at little or no expense to taxpayers. Metivier also told the Selectboard that he was impressed by the LGBTQ+ group’s “willingness to plant and care for the tree.”

Tulip trees, I learned from clicking on the nonprofit Arbor Day Foundation’s website, are fast-growing and can reach 60 feet or higher. They feature bright green leaves that resemble tulip flowers and turn golden yellow in the fall.

The species and location “make sense aesthetically with the rest of the town’s landscape” and will be “beautiful and distinct,” Metivier wrote.

Board opponents weren’t swayed.

“Not all Windsor residents are on board with this,” said Howard, a 2003 Windsor High School graduate.

“To have something in a public space that is pretty much a permanent structure should have 100% community support,” Woodman added. “I just don’t see it.”

Board Chairman Ryan Palmer didn’t see it the same way.

“To say we’re not going to support something just because some people won’t like it, I don’t think is a valid argument,” said Palmer, who is the Democratic candidate for Windsor County sheriff. “There’s always going to be pushback.”

I was glad Palmer called out Howard and Woodman for claiming they were only speaking up for their constituents. (Howard had the gall to say that “personally” she was “OK with the Pride tree.”)

In spite of what Howard and Woodman wanted people to believe, this wasn’t about giving voice to residents who felt uncomfortable stating their objections in public. It was about Howard’s and Woodman’s lack of tolerance for the LGBTQ+ community.

Jordan Smith, a 2008 Windsor High graduate, reminded the board that “when it’s human rights and civil rights, we do things even when it makes some people uncomfortable.”

“I don’t think planting a tree is a human right,” Johnson responded when casting her vote.

The LGBTQ+ community wasn’t looking for a “big ceremony or proclamation,” Jordan Smith said. It just wanted to “plant something that could thrive in Windsor, just like queer folk can.”

The board’s majority vote and Morse’s stance “don’t represent the community as a whole, I really believe that,” Jordan Smith told me last week.

Still the optics aren’t good.

It’s been more than 30 years since the closing of the Goodyear and Cone-Blanchard plants cost the town hundreds of decent-paying jobs.

Even with vacant storefronts in its downtown, Windsor is a community on the rebound, becoming an affordable option for young people and families looking to make the Upper Valley their home. They’ve put their money and sweat into fixing up houses in disrepair. They’ve also helped give Windsor a more diverse populace.

In February, the Selectboard approved an “Equity Declaration,” that, among other things, “urges all to denounce prejudice and welcome all persons.”

I don’t think it was a coincidence that the declaration was signed a month before Howard and Woodman were elected at the 2022 Town Meeting.

Before the Oct. 11 meeting, resident Colin Moon wrote to the board in support of the Pride tree.

“It is a simple yet meaningful show of support for the LGBTQ+ members of our community and further shows that Windsor is an inclusive and tolerant community to all,” he wrote. “These simple shows of support go a long way in signaling to the outside world (that) Windsor is a nice place to live.”

Brendan Dangelo, a resident who spoke at the meeting, summed up the case for approving the LGBTQ+ group’s request better than I can.

“A tree that represents folks who have had it rough for a long time,” Dangelo said. “Why not? It’s pretty simple in my mind.”

It only gets complicated when you have elected officials who can’t see the forest for the trees. Or, in Windsor’s case, refuse to look.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.

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